Timber Communities Worry Over Fate Of Secure Rural Schools Program

Alaska’s congressional delegation have expressed outrage over the requirement that timber communities pay back a chunk of their Secure Rural Schools subsidies as part of sequestration. But in the affected areas, there’s mostly a mood of anxiety as towns worry about what the move signals for the future.

Download Audio

When Steve Giesbrecht first learned that the federal government was asking Petersburg to return $55,000 in Secure Rural Schools funding, he was a little taken aback.

“Confused is a good word. Surprised. Especially considering that the money we received is for 2012, how can that be done?”

Giesbrecht is the borough manager in Petersburg, one of the biggest recipients of Secure Rural Schools money in Alaska. The borough got over a million dollars last year, with most of it going to education and the rest going to infrastructure projects.

Giesbrecht says that Petersburg got the funds months ago, and that they’ve all been allocated already. He’s hoping that they don’t have to pay the money back for that reason, and Gov. Sean Parnell has already said that Alaska has no plans to return the money that the federal government says it owes. But Giesbrecht says Petersburg could scrounge up the funds if it needed to — and that he’s more worried about what the repayment request means for the program’s future.

“Fifty-five [thousand dollars] is painful, and we would have to figure out a way to do that. It’s the long term that’s the bigger issue.”

The Secure Rural Schools program was started as a way to compensate timber communities for prohibitions on logging in national forest lands. With the federal government focused on tightening the budget, Giesbrecht — and city officials from places like Juneau and Wrangell — are worried that the program is at risk. He says if the money were to go away, it would be like a “house of cards” because Petersburg can only collect so much in property tax from its small population base.

“It becomes not a government issue as much as it does a community issue, in the sense that we have to find out, now how do we make that up? How do we decide what services we can still afford to offer in both at the school and within the borough.”

Communities in Southeast spread across the Tongass National Forest got over $10 million in Secure Rural Schools funding this past year, while the Southcentral region got nearly $4 million for Chugach National Forest lands.